For the longest time, I was among the many who thought they were above the Fast and Furious franchise. I was fairly young when the first film came out, barely entering my teens, and I did not like the film when I saw it. I didn’t find the appeal in the street culture that the film presented as the best thing ever, the machismo felt phony, immature and there wasn’t enough for me to latch onto. So, I ignored all the films that kept coming from the series and judged them as worthless, pandering garbage. Like many, I was surprised by the quality of Fast Five and even moreso when it turned out it wasn’t a fluke when Fast and Furious 6 was released. So, in anticipation for Furious 7, I watched all the films in a marathon session before seeing the latest (my thoughts on the films will be in the Side Note at the end of this review), and to my surprise, I actually have turned around on this franchise in ways I didn’t expect. This is all fine enough to look forward to Furious 7, but having James Wan in the director’s chair, and Kurt Russell, Jason Statham and Tony Jaa appearing as well? This feels almost too good to be true.

After the death of Han (Sung Kang) and an attack at Dominic Toretto’s (Vin Diesel) home, Dom, Brian (Paul Walker), Letty (Michelle Rodriguez), Tej (Ludacris), Roman (Tyrese Gibson) and Hobbs (Dwayne Johnson) find themselves being hunted by Deckard Shaw (Jason Statham), so they set out to find him before he finds them. They are given an opportunity from the shady government agent, Mr. Nobody (Kurt Russell) to find Shaw, but they must first track down a hacker named Ramsey (Nathalie Emmanuel) in order to use a device to find the terrorist Jakande (Djimon Hounsou).

At this point, whoever thinks they can find enjoyment in these films has likely already been turned by Fast Five and anyone who isn’t interested won’t give it the time of day. It is fascinating that despite the enthusiastically positive response that the recent films in the franchise has gotten (from critics as well, mind you), there is still that cynical reaction from people who haven’t even seen the movies have this idea that the Fast films are a no better than say a Michael Bay production. I think that’s because there’s this thought that the Fast films are these self-serious films that give no regard to character, story, theme, and only pander to the sensibilities of the lowest common denominator. Having seen all the movies now, it’s much simpler than that. It started on a pretty bad note with the first film, but as they went along, it was able to become legitimate self-parody, yet being a bit subtle about it (yes, subtle). It’s embracing the dumbness that was initially a crutch. I also think the one thing that really hits home is the fact that the past few films developed a genuinely well-realized thematic throughline of family transcending race and cultural background. It’s heavy-handed to a hilarious degree for sure (just try taking a drink every time Vin Diesel mentions “family,” I dare you), however the idea itself is not a joke. The family element of the films is serious and it provides the heart of the franchise that endears the characters to us. That is the key difference between the Fast films and any Michael Bay film (by the way, I’m not a Bay-hater, I’m simply humoring the sentiment), it’s the fact that there is clear love for the characters, and that love oozes off screen. There’s a certain mean-spiritedness in Bay’s films that is the root of what turns people off in his movies. The Fast films however, don’t have a cynical bone in its body. In the recent films especially, there is a sense of positivity, optimism, innocence and joy. Even in some of the questionable aspects like the many scantily-clad women, its presentation is so perfunctory that the homoeroticism has more sex appeal than the half-naked women. There’s an appeal to be had at watching characters you genuinely like going on crazy adventures around the world, laws of physics be damned. There can even be some comparisons to Marvel Studios, both in good and bad ways. Films from both franchises will often bring in some formulaic stories and questionable plotting, and their villains tend to be weak aside from one or two exceptions. However, at their best, they both succeed in focusing on the characters and their relationships and taking that one element seriously enough to allow some real engagement in a story that would otherwise feel like it’s out of a Saturday morning cartoon.

As everyone knows, Paul Walker had a tragic and untimely death in late 2013, which caused a production delay as well as re-writes and re-shoots. His brothers, Caleb and Cody, served as stand-ins with Weta Digital being brought in to create a CG Paul Walker. I found myself morbidly tense throughout the film simply wondering what will happen to Brian O’Connor. Each scene made me think whether it would be his last and it pumped the suspense on a more meta level. Though once everything is said and done the film does an absolute perfect sendoff to Brian O’Connor while paying a heartfelt tribute to Paul Walker at the same time. I’m not afraid to admit that I teared up a bit. The general melodramatic handling of films overarching plots do work in its efforts in sentimentality, but it never becomes overbearing or exploitative. It’s played just right. It shows the respect, passion and honesty from the filmmakers that they were able to pull it off as well as they did. His presence will definitely be missed, and I’ll be curious to see where the franchise goes from here.

Onto a lighter subject matter, one of the newcomers aside from some casting choices is James Wan being the new director. He is known for his mostly excellent work in the horror genre, with the only non-horror film being the much underrated 2007 revenge film, Death Sentence. Furious 7 marks his first attempt at a blockbuster, and he pulls it off wonderfully. It’s just distinctive enough from Justin Lin’s direction to stand out, but still familiar to the aesthetics of the franchise. The action and especially the motivation behind the action in the film is much more personal this time compared to previous films, and the direction represents that aspect very well. The action is much more frenetic; with each second packed with immediacy, urgency and momentum that drive the action forward. While there is certainly some quick-cut editing during the action sequences, there is a fluidity that keeps your spatial awareness and prevents any confusion. He also delivers not only the best action set piece in the franchise, but one of the best in recent memory. It is the mountain chase sequence that has been heavily featured in the trailer, but don’t worry they don’t spoil everything. This sequence works so amazingly in the same way that the train sequence in Spider-Man 2 works, which is another one of the all-time great action set pieces. The filmmaking in this scene is astounding in its ability to have clarity, progression, environmental exploration, balancing multiple character interactions and perfectly set-up action beats with great buildup, and constantly changing dynamics. It is a bit unfortunate that it does happen fairly early on, and none of the other sequences quite live up to its perfection, but it’s still worth a ticket price just for that one sequence. When it comes to the racing, James Wan uses some of his typical retro influences as many of the shots during the chases feel right out of a 70’s car movie. He even mentioned in an interview that he approached the film as a “raw, gritty 70’s revenge thriller,” and those little touches can be seen everywhere.

One thing I’ll always give this franchise is how diverse the cast is, there’s more minority representation here then there were at the last Oscars. If this is the one big franchise in Hollywood with minimal white lead protagonists, you know there’s a problem. But I guess that’s a rant for another time. The returning cast all do great work as usual. They have a groove going and their chemistry is what makes these films work so well and given the increased drama at the center of the film, the cast gets the opportunity to pull off more emotionally complex performances. Michelle Rodriguez was a standout to me in particular, but everyone gets a moment to shine. Dwayne Johnson is not in the film as much as he was in the previous two, he appears in the beginning and the end, but he’s used so perfectly that the waiting was worth it. The newcomers are very good as well. Jason Statham’s character seems like he’s in his own Jason Statham movie that occasionally crosses into the Fast and Furious universe. He seems to come and go, which may seem odd, but when he’s on screen, he’s great. He’s there to basically make every bad situation the main characters get in even worse just by showing up. Nathalie Emmanuel makes a strong impression with a lot of potential, and I’d like to see where they take her character in future films. Tony Jaa is your typical right-hand man to the villain, being there to show off his martial arts skills, and on that level he served his purpose well. Similarly, Ronda Rousey shows up for one scene so Michelle Rodriguez can have a fistfight with someone, and it is a great fight scene. The one actor I was looking forward to seeing was Kurt Russell, who is clearly having a blast in the film, fully aware of the tone, and he comes off as very playful. With how his character ends up, he could have potential as a prominent figure in future films, which I’m hoping screenwriter Chris Morgan take advantage of. Djimon Hounsou is one of the parts that I felt wasn’t necessary in the grand scheme of things, but he’s still does solid work. I do think Lucas Black gets the short end of the stick, as he only appears as a brief cameo to connect Tokyo Drift’s ending to Furious 7. So, anyone hoping for Sean Boswell to join the crew might be a bit disappointed.

Furious 7 has some flaws, mostly out of how unfocused and less streamlined the story is. However, its strengths vastly outweigh the weaknesses. It’s not just a perfect start for the summer film season it’s a near-perfect showcase of modern blockbuster filmmaking. When it comes to having fun at the movies, what gets an audience going is the appeal of the characters and seeing them in action, Furious 7 understands this well and places its attention on the characters and their relationships. It really doesn’t matter that the plot is a bit convoluted or that the film isn’t realistic in the slightest because it’s the love for the characters that makes everyone coming back. When a movie like Furious 7 is making me teary-eyed, I know something is done right. The film had every reason to be a disaster and not work on any level due to the tragic setbacks, but considering they still made a final product that is as cohesive, entertaining and emotionally engaging as it is, while also paying tribute to a fallen member of the Fast family in a way that is truly earnest and nuanced, is an astounding achievement that is worth celebrating. The film does Paul Walker justice and with the film’s expert craftsmanship, shows just how awesome going to the movies can be.

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Side Note: So, here are my quick thoughts on the previous installments. The Fast and the Furious (2001) is not a good film. I think the actors and their interactions are stiff, the plotting is dull and the film is too meat-headed for its own good. I did see this when it came out and it turned me off to the point of avoiding the franchise until Fast Five came out. Some of the races and its dated elements have some charm, but overall, still not really a fan. 2 Fast 2 Furious (2003) is slightly better than the first, in that it basically feels like an extended Miami Vice episode and I found charm in the homoerotic tension between Brian and Roman. Nothing outstanding about it, but I found it to be a more fun sit. The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift (2006), which I actually watched last because of the weird timeline, I actually enjoyed quite a bit. It’s a solid coming-of-age story meets fish-out-of-water story structured like a underdog sports movie. Lucas Black doesn’t quite have the charm to pull off the rebel without a cause type, but the supporting characters are solid. It’s the most self-contained of the series and feels like the kind of film that the very first film should’ve been. Plus, Sonny Chiba is in it, so I’m going to like it regardless. Fast and Furious (2009) is the worst of the series. Its attempt at being dark and brooding is a chore to watch, lacking any sense of joy or fun, and the CGI heavy car races were horrendous. A few solid character moments and a decent final chase prevent it from being completely worthless. Fast Five (2011) is probably my favorite of the series. It’s a perfectly constructed and immensely re-watchable blockbuster that hits every beat like a pro and the practical stunt work is glorious. It’s the film that brought my attention back to the series, and I haven’t looked away since. And Finally, Fast and Furious 6 (2013) continues the energy and straight-faced silliness that Fast Five perfected. Luke Evans made a solid villain and the set pieces are very impressive. It was a bummer knowing it would be the last we would see Han, but the film was still a lot of fun.